WHEN IT COMES TO TRAVEL, would you rather munch on scones in the gardens of Versailles or would you prefer traipsing through the muddy waters of the Mekong? Do you see yourself sipping coffee and eyeing cute strangers at corner cafés or do you dream of cycling through the mountains, relying on the kindness of locals and the universality of hand signals?
You might have set plans and desires of where and how you want to travel, but more often than not, travel picks us. A friend offers a couch, a job assignment pops up in a place you never imagined going to, and you’re left with an opportunity to go to a place or immerse yourself in a situation that never appealed to you before. And when that happens, go. Leave your assumptions and preconceptions at the door. Here’s why:
1. You’ll go in expectation free.
You’ve managed to book your flight and pack your bags, but that’s about all the preparation you’ve done. Great! You’re starting with the blankest of slates. You’re not of the mind that you’re going to nosh on tea and crumpets every day promptly at 4 o’clock or change thousands of lives in your two-toned khaki explorer gear. You’re just going. It’s only then that you can wind up creating whatever kind of life there that organically appeals to you. You won’t try to be anything you’re not or fit any poorly-conceived stereotype. You’ll just be you, living life how you so choose.
2. You probably don’t know the language, so you’ll have to learn it.
If you have interest level zero about a specific destination, odds are you haven’t learned the local language. To get around, you’ll start picking it up (unless you’re one of those types of travelers). And, sure, maybe you won’t leave newly bi-, tri-, or polylingual, but even just having a working knowledge of another language has any number of benefits. You’ll have more knowledge under your belt, a more impressive résumé, and a better understanding of other similar languages, too. And who knows? Having “Cheers!” and a few pickup lines in an exotic language under your belt might not hurt your social life, either.
3. You’ll meet travelers with interests different to yours.
It’s pretty safe to say that you’re not going to meet the same type of person at an Irish bar in Québec that you will on a dilapidated bus to Siem Reap. If you go out of your comfort zone, you’re going to meet other tourists (and locals) who are smack dab in the middle of their comfort zone, and are loving it. They’re going to be so incredibly different from you and have such an different viewpoint on life and travel that you’re going to be appalled at your past self for not wanting to have this experience in the first place. You’re in for some amazing stories, a wider circle of friends, and perhaps even one or two life-changing revelations.
4. You’ll learn about yourself.
If you’re a five-star hotel, carry-my-dog-around kind of traveler, you may not know just how resilient you are when a bat flies out of your Turkish toilet or when your motorbike breaks down on the side of a deserted road. And it goes both ways: if you’re used to subsisting on rice and beans and running in dusty sandals from village to village, you may not realize just how much you enjoy the occasional mountainside spa resort or seaside bed and breakfast.
Put yourself in a brand new situation — one you don’t even want to be in — and you’re bound to discover something about yourself you never knew before. If nothing else, you’ll be forced to confront the assumptions you’ve made about this place and about yourself. Sometimes it’s about us fearing we won’t fit in with the culture, not the culture fitting in with us. And when all is said and done, will you be willing to open up your mind and abandon your initial beliefs? Or will you find good reason to stick to your guns?
5. You’ll learn about your own culture.
It takes going to another country or region to see what’s unique about yours. You’ll notice differences in everything from how traffic runs to how people communicate to the number of cold cereal options at your local grocery store. Things you never even gave a second thought about and totally took for granted will — to you — now become the aspects that uniquely define your culture. And if you’ve already lived on every corner of the globe, you’ll be able to learn about those cultures, too, with a brand spankin’ new perspective.
6. You’ll see how good your life really is.
If you’re a hardcore Europhile and you shy away from any locale that may involve squat toilets or non-air-conditioned buses, one of the best reasons to go to a destination that doesn’t spark your interest is to see how good you’ve got it. Even if you’re making minimum wage at a smelly pizza restaurant, you’re financially better off than billions of other people who are not so different from yourself. Feeling like you need a little spark on the thankful scale? This trip may be just what you need. When you go back home, your friends will be green with envy and you’ll be green with gratitude.
7. You’ll get out of your comfort zone and grow.
It shouldn’t take long to think of a time you had to do something you didn’t want to do — and it ended up turning out great. Maybe you stayed in every night for six months and passed the bar. You took that job in the mailroom and now you’re Associate Producer. You tried the questionable-looking paté and your life was forever changed. Whatever it was, it’s not too hard to see that sometimes it’s the stuff that we don’t want to do that pays off the most. After this adventure, you’ll learn to drive on the wrong side of the road. You’ll navigate queue-less crowds with ease. You’ll take any situation that’s handed to you and adapt without batting an eye. You just have to jump in and get ‘er done. In the end, you’ll be a better, more dynamic person for it. Character boost? Check. Self-esteem boost? Check check.
8. You’ll be able to judge for yourself — and you’ll enjoy being wrong.
Let’s face it, the vast majority of us (especially when it comes to travel), operate on assumptions and stereotypes. Most of the time, they get us by — but sometimes they keep us from having unforgettable experiences. For this trip, find out for yourself. Be the person that knows firsthand, not the one that quotes a useless statistic or reports a friend’s experience.
And here’s the secret: once you get there and live it, you’ll start seeing the idiosyncrasies and unique bits of the culture that the stereotypes conveniently gloss over. The destination will become dynamic and alive, and you’ll be a part of it. Even if you don’t end up falling in love with your new temporary home, you’ll emerge with a more refined, accurate view of this spot on the globe, and you’ll likely admit that you were wrong. But that’s okay — you’ll be glad you were wrong. As for the life you imagined, whether it was hiding from miserable temperatures inside your apartment or hiding from teenaged and barefoot pirates, that won’t be your experience unless you let it be your experience. Instead, you’ll make friends, make memories, and have an experience that will never, ever be replicated again and you’ll likely never, ever forget it.